Political dissidents from China, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Cuba and Burma joined NDI Chairman Madeleine K. Albright and others to pay tribute to the life and work of Václav Havel at the National Endowment for Democracy. Havel, a playwright and political activist who went on to become the president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic, died last month at the age of 75.
The tributes emphasized Havel's empathy with those living under authoritarianism, his warm humor, his great intellect, and his constant striving to "live in truth," a major theme of his seminal work The Power of the Powerless.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democracy movement, sent a video message paying tribute to her long-time friend. She recounted that two days after Havel's death, a letter arrived from him offering his continued support to her and to the democracy movement in Burma. Noting that it was written only days before he died, "it was a surprise that he had remembered us at a time when he was so ill," she said.
Similarly, Li Xiaorong, a Chinese democracy activist, recalled seeing Havel deliver a letter to the Chinese embassy in Prague in January of 2010 demanding the fair trial and release of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Though the winter was particularly hard on Havel due to his illness, Li said, his concern for Liu Xioabo outweighed concerns for his own well being. "Havel speaks directly to us," she said. "We always felt that he knows intimately what a dissident writer like Liu Xiaobo faces as he or she criticizes a powerful authoritarian regime and tries to speak the truth."
Birtukan Midekssa, who is often referred to as the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopia, said that she identifies with the humble green grocer in The Power of the Powerless who becomes a dissident by refusing to live the lie of authoritarianism. Havel provided "a narrative of struggle" that helped sustain her during her long periods in solitary confinement as a political prisoner.
Albright, a friend of the Czech president, recalled both personal and public moments she shared with Havel. "I recall especially the night he played host to President Clinton at the Reduta jazz club in Prague, shaking maracas and a tambourine while Clinton tried out the new saxophone that Havel had given him," she said. She also spoke of Havel's humility and his optimism. "He had an unshakeable confidence in certain basic principles about how we humans should treat one another, and about the proper relationship between citizens and the state."
President Obama and the Dalai Lama, unable to attend the memorial, sent statements in praise of Havel and his work.
- Watch the full memorial»
- Read Albright's remarks»
- NDI mourns the passing of Václav Havel»
- Václav Havel receives the W. Averell Harriman award»
Published Jan. 11, 2012